Health risks build in face of housing crisis

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A bleak grey apartment complex with a high density of living units.
While probably meant to look austere, in Canada these days this is almost a dream living situation. Tim Tregenza via Wikimedia Commons

Social factors can become an impediment to being effective students 

Housing and accommodations are on the minds of many students as they return to school for the start of the fall semester. Students seeking housing are increasingly faced with bleak circumstances while cost of living prices continue to rise in Canada.  

In July, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a report titled “Can’t Afford Rent” on the minimum wage and weekly hours at that wage needed to make rent (rental wage) in provinces across Canada. According to the report the necessary rental wage is considerably higher than minimum wage in every province across the country. Additionally, instances in which one-bedroom rental wages are lower than current minimum wage exist only in three municipalities, all located in Quebec.  

Currently, there are approximately 828,000 single incomes households and 1,134,000 people in two-people income households living off of minimum wage. Together, this is approximately 5 per cent of the Canadian population. In Saskatchewan, people in one-person households with the income equal to or below a full-time minimum wage job represent 21 per cent of the population.  

The report shows that in every province west of Quebec, the average minimum hours required to make rent is at least 80 hours a week. Saskatchewan’s current minimum wage rests at $13 per hour, while the wage necessary for a one-bedroom rental wage is calculated at $18.62 and $22.27 for a two-bedroom apartment.  

Regina was not included in the study, but Saskatchewan’s largest city, Saskatoon, was. Findings within the report show that to afford rent in Saskatoon you would need to make $24.31 per hour for a two bedroom, or work 97 hours per week at the $13 minimum wage. A rental market report released by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) shows that the average two-bedroom rent in Regina rose by 3.3 per cent to $1,186 in 2022. In comparison, the average student housing accommodations at the university of Regina per semester is $3,884 for a two-bedroom apartment. 

Housing and income are well-established social determinants of health (SDoH). The Canadian government defines SDoHs as “the broad range of personal, social, economic and environmental factors that determine individual and population health.”   

Health Researchers Juha Mikkonen and Dennis Raphael contend that, contrary to the popular belief held by Canadians that we have personal control over health factors, characteristics that influence living conditions are set by the quality of multiple factors. Communities, housing situations, work settings, health and social service agencies, and educational institutions are all included as influences. 

Lacking housing or poor-quality housing have consistently been linked to negative health and well-being outcomes. Likewise, income is claimed to be one of the more important SDoH with implications for all others. In general, Canadians experience better health outcomes than our neighbours in the United Sates, but do not compare as well to other nations who have fully developed public policies supporting SDoH. Moreover, the World Health Organization (WHO) sees health inequities as “a toxic combination of poor social policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements, and bad politics.” 

In his book The Tenant Class, Ottawa-based author, political economist, and researcher at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, Ricardo Trajan says “there is no housing crisis.” Rather, Trajan describes a “poorly regulated market that extracts income from working-class people and channels it to higher-income segments of Canadian society.” In what Trajan admits is a somewhat provocative statement, he calls readers to “pick a side.”  

Correspondingly, Statistics Canada shows that real estate and rental leasing is Canada’s largest contributor to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) followed by manufacturing. Taken together with results from CCPA’s report and the WHO’s explanation of health inequities, we come to see the housing climate in Canada as more accurately understood not as a supply and demand issue, but the result of a socio-economic and governmental environment that prioritizes profits over housing security.  

When minimum wages no longer meet the wages required to afford rental prices, we must ask, what is their purpose? The Canadian government claims that Canada is one of the healthiest countries in the world. Yet, what does this mean when many Canadians cannot secure affordable housing, a critical and established SDoH? We must ask if the government’s claim of health is still true today.  

Trajan commits a lengthy exploration in his book to the history of tenant organizing in Canada, and calls renters to arms to bargain with one voice – much like trade unions. According to Trajan, many of the gains made by tenants have been won through organizing in this way.  

ACORN Canada is an independent national organization made up of low income and moderate-income people across nine Canadian cities. The organization has been fighting corporate landlords and their investors since 2004 with many wins under their belt, which include stopped displacements, won protections, and successful lobbying for stricter rent controls. However, the organization claims that recent phenomenon like the financialization of housing compounded with lack of full rental controls and increasingly weakened tenant protections continue to put low-moderate income tenants at a disadvantage.  

ACORN would like to see the creation of tenants’ unions and has made the following list of demands for action: mandate full rental controls across all provinces; stop financialized landlords form buying more affordable housing; the creation of an acquisition fund that enables non-profits, co-ops, and land trusts to purchase at-risk rental buildings; and building a minimum of 1.2 million units of social housing and affordable housing in the next decade.  

According to most recent data from Statistics Canada, there are just under 2.2 million students attending postsecondary schooling. Many of these students are renters or working minimum wage jobs. Because of this, students are well positioned with the potential to act as a powerful voice in the struggle for affordable housing. Moreover, students and young people represent the hope for change, progress, and a more just future, and therefore have a unique position in placing themselves in Canada’s housing crisis.  

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